One on One: Holding the proverbial umbrella

Cross-country and cross-continent cooperation's the name of the giving game, says Ronny Douek.

douek 248 (photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
douek 248
(photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
Likening the country to a table resting on three legs - the government, civil society and business - venture capitalist Ronny Douek explains why it wobbles when one is not in place. It's an interesting metaphor for someone whose actual table, in the conference room of his ultra-modern architectural wonder of an office building in Beit Yehoshua (donated by Bobby Goldberg and family from Cleveland, Ohio) is made of glass and looks as though it could comfortably seat 20. Considering the aim of his organization, Sheatufim, the Israel Center for Civil Society - to serve as an umbrella and facilitator for trilateral cooperation - a proper space for meetings would appear to be par for the course. It's a course that the 50-year-old businessman embarked upon two decades ago, almost by accident, though he says that throughout his life, he has "felt a sense of obligation to the community at large." Indeed, the Haifa-born philanthropist, who grew up in Ramat Hasharon (after a stint in Africa, where his parents were emissaries), served as a combat soldier in Sayeret Shaked and an officer in the paratroopers, was focused on volunteerism and charity as early as high school. In fact, it was then that he attempted to form his first umbrella group for volunteers. And it was then that he was confronted with a side of the seemingly straightforward endeavor he says he hadn't banked on: the complexities of cooperation, administration and organization, without which such an operation cannot run properly. It is this and other subsequent experiences that led to his founding of Zionism 2000 - under whose auspices many different joint projects are undertaken, he says, with maximum efficiency. And Douek's projects are as bountiful as they are varied, ranging from the war on drugs to development-town advancement and - most recently - to developing the Negev, through the creation of an eco-friendly desert lodge, to be designed by South African architect Bruce Stafford, in cooperation with the Bezalel School of Architecture. Contrary to common perception, asserts Douek, he is not the only homegrown success story who makes it his business to contribute time and money to causes he champions. "But, whereas it used to be that people in the local third sector gave sporadically, today there is more consciousness about the need to influence policy to bring about social change." What made you, a successful venture capitalist, turn your sights to social change through philanthropy? This comes from the education I received at home. I was raised in an atmosphere of volunteerism and giving. And I was very active in the youth movement Mahanot Olim. When I was 17, I tried to create an organization for volunteers in my high school - to give kids the opportunity to work in different areas, for example with senior citizens or children at risk, or in the Civil Guard. I actually managed to enlist about 200 volunteers. But the organization lasted only three months. Though it was a good idea, I had no administrative experience or support. So, on the one hand, I saw the great potential of such an operation, because so many people wanted to contribute, and on the other, I hadn't realized the importance of the logistical side. How did this kind of social consciousness on your part end up translating into business ambitions? I'm an ambitious person, regardless of the field. The point is that you set yourself a goal and go after achieving it. But when I really began, as an adult, to get involved in social activism was in the 1980s - during a period when I lived in London. There I read an article in Yediot Aharonot by Shlomo Abramovich about the abominable living conditions of immigrants from Ethiopia and the Caucasus placed in caravans. Soon after that, I came on a visit to Israel, and contacted Abramovich, who took me to visit the site he wrote about. It dawned on me that here we were, at the end of the 1980s, making the same mistake we made in the 1950s, when we put immigrants from North Africa into the ma'abarot [tent camps]. This really got to me, especially after hearing the heroic stories of the immigrants and the Israelis in the army and the Mossad involved in bringing them here. In other words, the state was spending billions to get them here, and then sticking them in virtual garbage dumps when they arrived. So I decided to get together a group of friends from the business world to do something about this - to create community centers within the caravan communities and work with the immigrants. We began to see results really quickly. For example, we donated a piano to one of the sites, in Rosh Ha'ayin, and I remember going there and seeing an older Russian woman teaching two Ethiopian kids how to play it. The very existence of the piano led to this interaction. At another site, in Emek Hefer, I heard loud wailing coming from the community center. As I approached, I saw Ethiopian families sitting shiva. It was the only place they could do it. The point is that with very little investment, we could see immediate returns. Furthermore, those places we helped were among the first to be dismantled. Due to the activities we generated, such as Hebrew-learning, these olim were the ones best able to move to towns and other communities and integrate into them. That was the first project. Following that success, we were contacted by the anti-drug-abuse association Al-Sam and asked to help create a program for youth - since the ones that existed weren't successful. At that time, I used to run on the beach. During one of my runs, I came across an abandoned bus. From this I got the idea to take buses and turn them into mobile anti-drug information units. I then assembled a team of experts: lawyers, theater people, psychologists, etc., and prepared a program. We first tried it out in Ra'anana, and saw that the reactions from the youth were fantastic. We also made a docu-drama about four kids going out to a party, showing what happens to those taking drugs and those not, and those driving under the influence. At that time, neither the Education Ministry nor the Anti-Drug Authority cooperated with us. [Prime minister] Yitzhak Rabin heard about our project, and our problems with the Education Ministry, and offered to launch it at the Prime Minister's Office in 1994. On the day of the launch, [PMO bureau chief] Eitan Haber phoned me to say that the ceremony was being called off, due to two terrorist attacks that had just taken place in Jerusalem. An hour later, Rabin himself reversed that decision. He said the ceremony would be held as scheduled. At the ceremony, reporters from all the major networks began to ask Rabin about the attacks. His response was that he wouldn't talk about anything other than the project he was there to launch - a project, he said, which was addressing a problem no less critical than terrorism: drug use among our youth. To complete a circle: A few years later, [prime minister Ariel] Sharon asked me to be the chairman of the Anti-Drug Authority - the very body that originally didn't want to cooperate with us. That's irony for you. Speaking of Rabin, we have just marked 13 years since his assassination. Did that affect your subsequent path, and if so, how? I met with Rabin a number of days before his assassination. The subject we discussed was youth movements. He was very keen on my idea to get the country's youth more involved in social activism. I experienced his assassination as a catastrophe on the scale of mass murder. This was the lowest point we could have hit as a society, as a nation, as Jews. It took me a few days to understand that it was a "side effect" of a greater societal illness - the product of an enormous schism. And I, like many others, felt the need to do something about it. One possible route would have been to enter politics. The path I chose was social change. The goal I set for myself was to cause as many people as possible to contribute something to society. I believed that someone who gets up in the morning and thinks about somebody or something other than himself - for the greater good - will be a better person. And the more such people there are, the better a society we will have. In this country, in spite of our always having been "the few against the many," we have always won because of the involvement and dedication of individuals. That trait, somehow, seemed to have gotten lost somewhere along the way. That's how Zionism 2000 was born. We wanted to create a different kind of Zionism - now that we'd already established our state and fought in wars - to start examining and healing our internal ills. One of the things we decided to work on was enlisting businesses for the good of the community. It's a model we saw in the United States, which was very successful in places like Cleveland - a city that was virtually on the verge of collapse, but with the help of businesses stepping up to the plate, the federal government also pitched in. This was what we wanted to do here, and offer businesspeople the opportunity to choose the field that interested them. It was the first project of its sort in this country - an umbrella organization, a facilitator, enabling companies to identify projects suited to them, and help make best, most efficient use of the companies' resources for the projects. Another project we established - City in Transition [Ir B'shinui] - was for the enhancement and advancement of development towns, where immigrants and other socioeconomically disadvantaged groups were basically dumped by the government and forgotten. So, we started by trying to identify the added value of places like Sderot, Migdal Ha'emek and Beit She'an, and to enlist the help and support of other organizations and local residents to engage in strategic activity for change. In Beit She'an, for example, this centered on soccer. We sponsored its soccer team and established a soccer school there. This was a great opportunity not only to see the rewards reaped from cooperative work within the communities, but to realize the great benefit of cooperation with the American business community, through Partnership 2000. There are amazing businesspeople who come to Israel, roll up their sleeves - literally and figuratively - and get down to serious work in this country. It was through this that I began to grasp the great potential in partnerships. In some of the places, we discovered there were 20 nonprofit organizations doing the same thing and not talking to one another. Even in philanthropy, it turns out, there are big egos. City in Transition was geared, therefore, toward cooperation and integration. This led us to think about similar cooperative efforts in other projects as well, using all the experience we'd gained over the years, and the understanding that real change can only be made through cooperation among different groups with a similar goal and through pressure on the decision-makers. We thought about how we could institutionalize this. And That's how Sheatufim was created, with four main bodies: the United Jewish Communities, the Rashi Foundation, Zionism 2000 and the Gandyr Foundation. American-Jewish philanthropists used to complain about their Israeli counterparts for not contributing their share to charity - and for allowing the government and other agencies to schnor in the United States. Has that really changed, and if so, when did the change begin? Up until the 1990s, Israeli philanthropy was sporadic. One wealthy family would give, say, to the philharmonic, and another family would give to something else, depending on its interests. But it was very specific. There wasn't an attempt to bring about social change or to influence government policy. The separation between business, nonprofits and politics was quite clear. It has taken time for that to change. Doesn't the connection between business and politics - what we call "hon v'shilton" - have negative connotations? Yes, unless it is defined as taking mutual responsibility for society. With the right balance, it can only be a good connection. Take, for example, people here who saw ways in which they could have an influence on road safety or education... Speaking of which, business magnate Shlomo Dovrat headed the commission to reform the education system, and after much effort on his part, it was quashed, mainly by the teachers' unions. The very fact that Shlomo managed to enlist the help and support of a spectrum of serious people is in itself a great achievement. We'll only know in the future whether it succeeded or not. But his efforts showed that the barriers can be broken. That's the change he brought about. These are processes that can take a long time, but I think we're moving in the right direction. In fact, Sheatufim was selected to head the round table in the Prime Minister's Office [the first meeting of which was held on July 30] that constitutes a framework for trisectoral dialogue among the government, civil society and the business sector. The Second Lebanon War was a lesson in how crucial such dialogue and cooperation can be. Are you referring to the lack of preparedness on the government's part, in terms of the home front - such as a lack of proper bomb shelters for the residents of the North under missile attack, and inability to evacuate civilians - leading to private initiatives, such as those undertaken by Arkadi Gaydamak? I don't know Gaydamak or his motives, but he did take welcome initiatives. One can't ignore the fact that at that moment, he ameliorated the situation of many people. There was a vacuum and he tried to fill it. The optimal situation now will be ongoing cooperation between the government and the third sector, so that we don't find ourselves taking ill-planned emergency measures in times of trauma. We have to be able to enlist all cooperative bodies systematically and have existing plans in effect, long before there is a need for them, so that emergencies can be dealt with appropriately. Without criticizing Gaydamak, his activities were the product of a larger failure. Why is there so much criticism of private initiatives to help the needy? Why are soup kitchens that are funded by individuals attacked for enabling the government to shirk its responsibility to feed the poor? First of all, let me say that no citizen in this country should go hungry. We are rich enough and sophisticated enough to guarantee they don't. And making sure of this is the role of the government. But there's a tradition - even a Jewish one - of giving to less fortunate members of the community. So, if a private individual sets up a soup kitchen, that's a good thing. But if we can have an influence on legislation, logistics and on altering social and economic priorities, it's even better. Sheatufim shows just how cooperation between philanthropy and the government can help solve such problems, both immediately and in the long-term, through education. Is it not problematic that the government here falls every couple of years, forcing you to have to deal with different point people in the relevant ministries? Are your connections and cooperative efforts guaranteed, no matter who the education minister is, for example? When a project is up and running and successful, it's not so easy to stop cooperating with it. Any minister who sees a working project will be hard put to hinder it. At a major conference we held in June, [former British prime minister] Tony Blair said something great. Though he headed a socialist government, he encouraged the outsourcing of certain government services to private organizations. He said that the private sector often does things more efficiently than the government. Again, with the right symbiosis among the three sectors of society, we can work wonders. Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer said that the global financial crisis won't hit Israel as hard as it has other places. Even if this is true, couldn't anxiety about the future on the part of the local business community have a negative effect on philanthropy? To every crisis there are also advantages. One advantage to the current crisis is that it will force NGOs and the business community to be much more efficient in their social activities. The need to lower costs and rely more on partnerships will be greater. I recently heard an economist warn that our own financial crisis will knock on the door in 2010. He recommended that we start preparing for it now. When the Israeli economy suffers its big hit is precisely when cooperative efforts will be most necessary. Nevertheless, government must play a major role in assisting the many NGOs that provide social services to the needy. Don't such warnings have the opposite effect - and cause people to hold on to their money, rather than cooperate to give it away? I'm sure there's no one in Israel or abroad who hasn't been affected in some way by the current crisis. Now is the perfect time to take serious stock of our performance in the areas of welfare, social justice and education. Sheatufim is the product of a number of extremely important organizations who understood that things had to be done differently, even before the current crisis struck. When you do something right, even if you do it with fewer resources, it is much more efficient. A few months ago, Sheatufim created a program called "10 on 10 - Cross-Border Philanthropy." The idea was to enlist 10 Israelis from the third sector, and 10 American counterparts, to work together on an as-of-yet unknown endeavor. It took us a mere two weeks to get the Israelis, each of whom commits to $100,000 for two years - and that's without their knowing what the project is, just that they are going to be working in cooperation with 10 Americans. That should give you an answer about Israeli philanthropists at the current time. They're really anxious to learn from their American counterparts about the way they operate, which is much more defined and organized - and involves much more cooperation among the communities. At the moment, the Americans are in the process of getting together their group. We were sure it would be the opposite - that it would be harder to find the Israelis. What about the next generation? In Israel, this whole area is now taking root, whereas in the US, the younger generation is reported to be less Israel-focused. Both in Israel and in the US, the younger generation wants to do things differently from their parents. And there's no doubt that the Americans are facing a problem of educating the next generation to care about being Jewish, let alone to give financial support to Israel. I understand their concern, and it's ours as well, because if the younger generation in the US doesn't continue to care about their Jewish identity, they certainly won't contribute to Israeli causes. The good news is that things have changed in our relationship. We're no longer the poor relatives waiting for a handout from Uncle Sam. We are actually partners. It has become a situation of genuine give and take in both directions. We feel mutual responsibility. What about your own personal "next generation"? Have you raised your children to be philanthropists? The best thing that happened to me this year was that two of my children began working as volunteers in an organization for youth with disabilities. My daughter even raised money to initiate an exhibit there this past summer. What this tells me is that I must have done something right over the years.